We Need Institutions

As I write there’s just been a small Christian Twitter brouhaha (which places me temporally, not at all), over a new institution launched by The Gospel Coalition: The Keller Center for Cultural Apologetics.

At the outset it’s worth saying that I was naturally warmly disposed towards the idea simply because more than one of the people involved has been incredibly kind towards me personally at difficult points in my life. I don’t know them super well but would want to count them as friends. Admittedly, they don’t need me to defend them.

It caused a stink for a range of reasons. Some argued that we shouldn’t name things after living people, because of the damage it causes if that person falls, and the invitation to the Devil to ‘take them out.’ I agree, though it’s also just tacky. This is partly cultural though, our American cousins are much more sanguine about naming ministries after people and don’t really understand the way it makes our national character squirm.

Beyond that though, in the wake of the rolling disaster zone that was RZIM as all the revelations came out in the past few years, people are justly concerned by something that sounds similar without doing the work to show how it’s different. The governance structures or where the money was going seemed unclear to begin with.

There were also criticisms over whether what the centre was going to do was actually ‘cultural apologetics,’ over whether Keller’s model is that helpful (I think James Wood’s critique of the model Keller spawned is worth attention), over whether TGC are the people to do this sort of thing, and probably a thousand things besides.

[Editorial insert: since I wrote this there has been a whole ‘other commotion about the first article TKC posted, which has cooled my opinion of the institution already. Lot’s to say about that, perhaps, but not in this post.]

One criticism that I would like to think about a little was that we don’t need more institutions. I saw a few people express different versions of this idea, and I want to strongly disagree: we need more institutions.

I’d like to broaden it out, because I don’t particularly want to defend the Keller Centre, and if I’m honest I’m not sure that British Christians need more American institutions.

We are fragmented

The British evangelical church is fractured. We live in silos. As an example, I’m told by friends in the ‘conservative evangelical’ world that Jonathan Fletcher was a huge deal. I’d never heard of him until the scandal broke.

In my own church world, I can chat to someone around my table and mention a figure that I think is moderately well known in the UK scene, and they’ve never heard of them. They equally mention people I’ve never heard of. We do better with recognising the American names—not least because they’re backed by money.

It really doesn’t matter that much if individuals become well-known, though I think a fear of fame—often justified—can prevent us from getting ideas out there at times.

What does matter is how fragmented we are. We don’t know each other’s worlds. It isn’t particularly good for us, and it prevents our ability to do things.

The Charismatic Dimension

In the specifically charismatic parts of the wider evangelical world, I think we’re drifting and lack unity. Andrew Wilson describes the way that the dynamism has fallen away over the decades, concluding that institutions are what we need.

It may well be that those who suggested we already have enough institutions are right about that in their corners of the church (though I doubt it), in the charismatic world we have very few. That’s because we don’t build things. The concern is that excessive numbers of parachurch ministries detract from the church (agreed) and that they often lack clear governance or church connections (also agreed).

And yet, ‘institutions,’ by which I mean any structure that has the potential to last and isn’t itself a local church, are probably the only way to unite our disparate churches. We could be talking about denominational entities or, more likely in the evangelical world, institutions that are loosely connected to denominations but can cross those borders.

We’re Thin

It doesn’t take a particularly insightful analysis to see that the church in the UK is beleaguered. There are signs of health, but lots of decline too. The denominations that are healthy are growing, but not at a rate that belays the decline in those that aren’t. And, before you get your knickers in a twist, I’m aware that both Newfrontiers and FIEC like to claim they aren’t denominations because of the way they operate, but it’s a group categorised (or denominated) by a name, so that’s silly talk.

Among those that are growing it’s also true that a lot of Christian life and Christian teaching is pretty thin. There’s a widespread liberalism in the average Christian life (not theological liberalism but the tyranny of choice), there’s not a lot of serious theological reflection outside of the Universities, and that which is there doesn’t reach the churches. There’s a wealth of serious theologians in the UK, though many are aging now, little of it has much impact that we can discernibly notice.

That may be pessimistic, though I think it rings with truth. It’s also true that the average Christian is not very good at reading their Bible. I don’t think that’s their fault, but there’s not much that anyone but a few isolated individuals seem to be trying to do about it.

An Organisational Problem

I think institutions are part of the answer, not because they’ll solve anything, but because we need to get organised.

A lot of the problem is money. The UK church is not wealthy. You might want to point to lots of counter-examples on that statement, and some of it is a problem of scale, but it’s also demonstrably true that thinkers who want to do something about these sorts of problems either need to be academics, and so end up divorced from the Church at large, or pastors, and so end up without the time and resources to think or travel to actually do anything beyond their locality. There are exceptions, but they’re rare and have often walked a difficult path.

We might think academics and pastors are all we need, we might not even think we need the academics, but neither has the time to do the sort of work I’m talking about. Pastors definitely don’t, even if they want to.

Institutions should allow us to fund and develop teachers who can do some of this work across borders. We should be able to develop what the medievals might have called ‘Doctors of the Church,’ or charismatic me might want to call an ‘Ephesians 4 Teacher.’ Perhaps they could develop Prophets, Evangelists, and Apostles as well. Though, the churches I know aren’t doing so badly on those—there are structural reasons why that’s the case, but that’s a topic for another day.

There are American examples similar to the sorts of things I’m talking about, for a certain kind of Reformed Catholic you might look at the Davenant Institute or the Theopolis Institute—both with distinct flavours of their own. You could look at the way some of the Baptist seminaries connect with churches—Midwestern seem to be particularly good here. I don’t see examples that encompass the Charismatic even there, but we lack it here in the UK as far as I can see.

I have a massive, vested interest in my line of argument: my aspiration is to be that kind of Teacher. I work full time, currently, and the resources to free me to do other things are hard to come by. It’s not impossible, I’m hatching some plans, but there’s no obvious route or obvious resources.

That shouldn’t be how it is. We should do something about it. If I ever get to a place to do so, I will.

In the meantime, though, here are the takeaways:

We should build things that can last, whatever the future might hold. They should be clearly for the church, rather than for themselves. They should exist to develop people who then do things. In order for any of this to be possible they need to be heavily invested in by churches in terms of prayer, support, and encouragement. Our churches need to think this is a good idea. And, they need to be heavily invested in financially.

I’ve no idea where the money will come from. I’m half hoping that writing this is a sort of act of faith that will cause someone somewhere to do something about these ideas, even if it has nothing to do with me. But, if you happen to be reading this and want to be part of changing it, drop me a message—I’d love to talk.

Photo by Bruce van Zyl on Unsplash

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